Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Geologist's Worst Nightmare

The Monolith Monsters(1957)
Director: John Sherwood
Cast: Grant Williams, Lora Albright, Les Tremayne

The award for most original monster idea of the 1950s, has to go to this Universal-International production that contains neither atomic mutations or aliens, but rocks from space that when exposed to water, grow and crash, multiplying themselves bit by bit. Despite it's outrageous premise, this is actually a fairly tense and intelligent film with a genuinely frightening presence and solid characterization.

The film begins with a meteor shower that unleashes strange rock fragments that are picked up by a passing geologist who takes them back to his laboratory for examination. A chance exposure to water and multiplies them. The next morning, his partner, Dave(Grant Williams) discovers his friend dead and in a petrified state. Dave's girlfriend(Lola Albright) is a teacher that takes her students on a field trip and one of the children takes one of the rocks home, only to have the same results as the late geologist. Turns out that she is also infected with something from the rocks that is quickly turning her flesh into a stone, solidfying it. Dave contacts his college professor(Trevor Bardette) and they try to determine what the rocks are. The Professor believes they are from a meteor and he is proven right. However, they can not figure out why the rocks have grown, until water is accidently spilled on a sample and they learn the truth. A freak storm erupts across the desert and the rocks grow to gigantic size and crash down into fragments, creating more and more of their kind. The small town nearby is thrown into a state of emergency and the scientists race to find a way to stop the monoliths. A doctor has cured the little girl with a saline solution and Dave figures that the approaching monoliths can be halted by a combination of water and salt, so a dam is rigged to blow that will cross through a salt mine and enable the rocks to be stopped. The monoliths halt and the terror is over, for the present.

The Monolith Monsters is a very off-beat and strange science fiction film, that will likely not appeal to most younger fans hungry for monsters and something more gruesome. It's a more subtle picture than most of the period and for this reason, is one of the best produced in the late-50s. The script is intelligent and the characters handle the situation with intelligence and a certain amount of desperation. These are frightened people trying to survive and take on a dire situation, emotions reminiscent of classics like The Thing(1951) and Them!(1954). The science works well in the picture and while it's pretty basic geology, it's all correctly presented, which gives the proceedings some amount of credibility. Certainly, the direction and special effects department must also be given credit here as well.
The amount of detail given the characters and the small bits of business, like a character opening a window to give himself some air or a discussion about coffee in the middle of the investigation, give the picture a human element, often missing. The effects are fantastic, especially when one considers the budget was less than 100,000 dollars! The monoliths and the ensuing destruction are all flawlessly presented and are among the most impressive of any of the 50s sci-fi classics.

The performances are very well-handled by a decent cast of character actors, led by Grant Williams, most famous as The Incredible Shrinking Man(1957). He's capable in the standard leading man of science and his panic and determination add to the drama. Les Tremayne as the newspaper man makes more out of his stock character than many actors would have, and is a constant delight. Again credit must be given to director Sherwood for getting what he did out of such a low budget, holding his own against the master sci-fi master of Universal-International, Jack Arnold.
The Monolith Monsters will probably always be destined to remain in obscurity because of it's subject matter, but do not let that dissuade you from seeing this picture. Even if the concept on the surface may seem silly, this is not quite a Mystery Science Theater 3000 product and is well worth the time of any sci-fi fan looking for something a little different.

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